Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People is an iconic image of The French Revolution. The painting romantically depicts sacred Marianne, the personification of liberty bearing the tricolour and leading the common people in the July revolutions of 1830. The revolution of 1789 and the upheaval that followed in the next century saw France define themselves as a nation that was to be a beacon of equality and epitomise the true meaning of liberty with its republican rule. It is no wonder that the revolution is of such interest to historians (including myself) given its sheer magnitude and the dramatic nature of overthrowing a monarchy and establishing republican rule in an era that was largely dominated and defined by absolutist monarchies.
The French Revolution has been studied in tremendous depth by scholars and despite the bloody years of the terror , the revolution has allowed France to possess a ‘moral high-ground’ of sorts over its European counterparts.
France’s history is largely what defines it as a nation today; still a republic and still upholding, with vigour, the revolutionary values of 1789. The values of the revolution extend beyond the memorable tagline of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. To distance the revolutionary regime from the absolutist monarchy of Louis XVIII, secularism was implemented as a key component of the revolutionary regime. The Bourbon monarchy had a strong relationship with the Catholic Clergy and over the course of the revolution, to be Catholic was synonymous with being a royalist. Therefore, complete separation of Church and State was necessary, which doesn’t sound all that radical, however during the years of the terror under Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety, the revolutionaries pushed this ideology to its extremes.
‘Laïcité’ was the term used to define the process of de-Christianisation and derives from the concept of the ‘lay people’ who should not be influenced or oppressed by clergy or organised religion. One clear example of the extents to which the revolutionaries pushed this idea was the revolutionary calendar. In attempt to remove any religious or royalist influence from France a new calendar was established with a whole new system of days, months and years. Each day was 10 hours long, each week 10 days long and all the names of the months were changed to seemingly random words such as Fructidor meaning fruit and Thermidor meaning heat. The calendar highlights the lengths the revolutionaries were prepared to go to in order to rid the republic of remnants of Catholic authority and create a secular state.
The mistrust of Catholicism continued and reached its height during the terror with the creation of ‘The Cult of the Supreme Being’. This cult was to become the new state religion of France, according to Robespierre. The main focus of this new religion was virtue but a type of virtue that could be compared to the ‘civic virtue’ practiced by the ancient Greeks or Romans within the body politic. Again, the revolutionary regime and state takes the forefront and unlike Catholicism, this new religion did not demand obedience that conflicted with a citizens allegiance to the state. Historians have picked out the cult as one of the main reasons for counterrevolution and Robespierre’s dramatic downfall and the cult was quickly banned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. The revolutionary relationship with religion was turbulent but ultimately secularism has remained a value that the revolutionaries and many modern French people believe works to uphold the ideas of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
Reaching its culmination in 1905, the secularisation of France was seemingly complete. The French law of secularism was passed and complete separation of Church and State was confirmed and secularism was now enshrined in the Third Republic. From the idea of bringing down Catholicism in order to propel the revolution, the secularism that exists in modern day France is quite different and in the last few years it has become a poignant point of discussion. France has become a diverse nation with many different people of various religious backgrounds. Tension has arisen between the secular values of the French nation and its Muslim population and with the Charlie Hebdo shooting in January 2015 where 12 people lost their lives, revolutionary ideas of complete freedom of speech and the press and indeed secularism and their presence in modern day France were called into question.
Secularism is held up in all areas of the French Republic including education. Religious education is not taught in schools and ‘conspicuous’ symbols of religious affiliation are not allowed in public state areas meaning that Muslims are not allowed to wear headscarves to school and there are calls to extend this to universities.
A news story that epitomised the question of whether France’s use of the revolutionary values of 1789 in the twenty first century is appropriate was the ‘burkini’ story. A woman was fined on a French beach for supposedly wearing a ‘burkini’ and covering herself, an act that is an important part of Islam for many Muslim women. For many onlookers, including myself, this seemed like blatant discrimination from the French authorities rather than the upholding of their reputation as the romantic beacon of liberty and equality in the Western world. Islam is just one example of how the effects of secularism in France are damaging to a sense of community as for many Muslims, separating their religion into public and private spheres is very difficult due to their beliefs. Oliver Tonneau raised the important point that through these measures Muslims are becoming ‘alienated by republicanism’ hence increasing the possible danger of radicalisation. If France continues to push the revolutionary ideal of secularism they run the risk of appearing like they are trying to assimilate their population which is now a fantastically diverse range of different people, far different from that of 1789. The nation needs to embrace ideas of community and diversity along with their revolutionary ideals they have placed on a pedestal or unfortunately they run the risk of exasperating already existing tensions.
David Andress, The Oxford Companion to the French Revolution (United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2015).
Per-Erik Nilsson, Unveiling the French Republic: National Identity, Secularism, and Islam in Contemporary France (Netherlands: Brill publishing, 2017).
Ben Quinn, ‘French Police Make Woman Remove Clothing on Nice Beach Following Bikini Ban’, The Guardian, 24 August 2016. [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/24/french-police-make-woman-remove-burkini-on-nice-beach]
Oliver Tonneau, ‘An Apology For French Republicanism’, Philosophical Journal of the Independent Left, (Jan/Feb 2016) [https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/commentary/an-apology-for-french-republicanism].